During the last few weeks of 2019, news reports began spreading about people in the city of Wuhan in China contracting a strange, pneumonia-like disease caused by a heretofore unheard-of virus. At the time, most countries had yet to recognize the threat that this new virus could potentially pose. In fact, the government and bureaucracy of mainland China had yet to even confirm that the infection was transmissible between humans. Amidst this sea of apathy, secrecy, and ignorance, however, Taiwan remained a shining exception.
By the 31st of December, Taiwanese officials had begun screening any individuals flying in from Wuhan, trying to detect any flu-like symptoms that have since been associated with the coronavirus. Taiwan had, by the 12th of January, sent a team of medical experts to inspect the situation in Wuhan. This made the government of Taiwan one of the first in the world to recognize the potential threat posed by the coronavirus and respond accordingly. As Taiwan is located so close to ground zero, their caution might have helped prevent a major epidemic in the country.
It takes less than three hours to reach Taipei from Beijing by flight. Despite this, Taiwan and mainland China remain at loggerheads with one another thanks to unresolved border issues and political differences originating in the 20th century civil war between the two sides. China sees Taiwan as one of its provinces while Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign nation, which is the basis for much of the antipathy on both sides.
An Overview of the Coronavirus Situation
So far, the coronavirus has infected more than 7,24,000 individuals around the world. Of these, approximately 34,000 people in 177 countries have died from the disease as of now. Taiwan, which receives millions of Chinese visitors every year and has hundreds of thousands of its own citizens living in mainland China, has less than 300 confirmed cases and has lost only three of its citizens to Covid-19 as of yet. As a result, Taiwan’s prompt and effective Covid-19 response has been praised by healthcare professionals and government officials around the world.
Experts, such as physicians and researchers, working on the coronavirus pandemic around the world have given Taiwan a glowing critique. According to many, no country on earth has done a better job containing the pandemic and minimizing its effects than Taiwan. The efficient Taiwanese healthcare system and the forward-thinking government policies were together able to facilitate the widespread implementation of effective prevention and control measures. Taiwan’s sophisticated epidemic-response infrastructure, developed and perfected during the devastating SARS outbreak, also played a role in helping the country escape the ravages of the epidemic that swept China, and later, the world.
Taiwan’s Brush with SARS
In 2003, Taiwan was at the epicenter of a different epidemic. Known as severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, this viral disease is in some ways similar to the coronavirus. The symptoms of both the ailments are quite similar, they’re transmitted in similar ways, and SARS, like the coronavirus, also originated in mainland China. At its peak, SARS killed 73 of the 346 infected individuals in Taiwan, making it one of the hardest-hit regions during the epidemic, trailing only mainland China and Hong Kong.
Learning its lessons from the SARS epidemic, Taiwan left no stone unturned in becoming self-reliant in the detection and prevention of new diseases and potential epidemics. For this purpose, the Taiwanese government created the scientific and medical infrastructure that would allow the country to make its own assessments and diagnoses, without having to rely solely on reported data from other countries such as China.
In 2004, the government of Taiwan established the National Health Command Center (NHCC), which was tasked with keeping track of, preparing for, and responding to potential outbreaks of contagious diseases. The NHCC deployed a unit known as the Central Epidemic Command Center as soon as reports of the coronavirus outbreak began to spread. Once mobilized, the Central Epidemic Command Center rapidly created a list of more than 120 action items that could help limit the effects of the outbreak. This list was disseminated among the populace and implementation began before the end of 2019.
Some of the action items on the aforementioned list, according to the director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes, and Prevention at Stanford University, included case identification, border control, and the timely quarantine of suspicious cases. With the memory of the SARS outbreak still at the forefront of many people’s minds, Taiwan knows better than most just how much is at stake. And they used that knowledge to improve their response to a similar situation before it could even begin to properly take shape.
Preventive Measures and Wider Response
One of the major steps that helped Taiwan limit the fallout of the coronavirus epidemic was very early (and strict) border monitoring. As early as the 26th of January, Taiwan banned the entry of any visitors from Wuhan into the country. Soon after, Taiwan implemented regulations that required all travelers to scan their travel information at border checkpoints using QR codes.
Following this comprehensive data collection process, the Taiwanese government linked the travel histories of all visitors to the online platform of its national healthcare system. As a result, officials could easily search for and access potential coronavirus cases, monitor quarantined patients, and collect essential information about similar outbreaks in other countries and regions.
Despite the geographical and political closeness between Taipei and Beijing, the number of Chinese travelers in Taiwan fell drastically in 2020. This was exacerbated by the fact the due to ongoing political tensions, China had already restricted some travel to Taiwan in mid-2019, long before the threat of the coronavirus surfaced in Wuhan.
Apart from this, experts have lauded Taiwan for proactively implementing several measures to efficiently allocate resources and address potential shortages. Taiwan ramped up the production of surgical masks and banned exports in January. With the help of prison labor, more than 8.2 million surgical masks are being produced in Taiwan every single day. Every citizen of the country has been allotted a strict ration of two surgical masks per person per week, in order to prevent any shortfalls.
By February, Taiwanese researchers had started work on developing new vaccines and diagnostic tests for the coronavirus. One group of Taiwanese scientists claims to have developed a test that can test for Covid-19 infection in less than fifteen minutes, although this test will not be formally deployed for another three months. If the test can be implemented at scale, then it would increase the efficiency of medical institutions by a huge margin, since the fastest diagnostic test for the coronavirus currently in use takes more than three hours to show results.
The public response to Taiwan’s efforts has been largely positive, with citizens complying with the authorities and voluntarily implementing prevention techniques. Citizens have helped the government conduct regular fever checks, sanitize public buildings and infrastructure, and implement some extreme quarantine measures.
Violators who do not abide by the established regulations might have to pay fines of up to $5,000. Daily press briefings and online updates from the government have helped the citizens stay abreast of key developments in the drive to contain the virus, which in turn leads to further cooperation as citizens feel as though they are a part of a joint effort, a collaboration between the nation and its people.
It is because of this reason, more than anything else, that Taiwan’s efforts have been so much more successful than those of many other countries that tried a more heavy-handed and top-down approach to contain the problem of the coronavirus in Taiwan.